Features, Long Read, Philosophy, Review

Has Liberalism Failed?

Fascism failed. Communism failed. The last of the three major political philosophies that clashed through the twentieth century—Liberalism—still stands. It won, whether by force of arms or argument, but is now in retreat. Regimes once liberal have recently become authoritarian; more ominously, Americans have become impatient with liberal procedures and compromises. Many of its proponents argue that these setbacks are temporary, problems to be solved by certain adjustments of policy, rhetoric, or leadership. In Why Liberalism Failed, however, Patrick Deneen argues forcefully that the problems are congenital. Liberalism was bound to fail in the end as a politics because it was doomed from the beginning by its philosophy.

In this dire judgment he agrees with a whole host of present critics. Notable among them are resurgent global rivals to liberalism’s postwar world-order: Xi Jinping’s China, Putin’s Russia, Khameini’s Iran. But the critics are also domestic. In universities sustained by liberal values, ironically, postmodernists have been declaring liberalism a failure since at least 1968—sometimes for the same reasons as the foreign rivals. Deneen agrees with their shared conclusion, as his title assumes, but his explanation is his own. Yet before explaining why liberalism failed, he must first show skeptics that it has done so. After all, we his audience are likely to be citizens of liberal societies, and many of us still believe liberalism—the politics of rights and freedoms, constitutional government, and the rule of law—is succeeding, at least compared with its rivals. So what is the evidence that it is not?

Every regime hits peaks and troughs. What is the evidence that this present crisis is terminal failure, rather than another periodic setback? Taking the long view, why should we believe that the order that has given us more peace and prosperity than any other system in the history of the world is done? Across two hundred pages, Deneen adduces our consumerism and debt, our anomie and marital instability, our environmental degradation and short-sighted use of antibiotics. “These maladies,” he writes, “include the corrosive social and civic effects of self-interest.” Even if he were right on every count (he’s not), he provides no evidence that any these problems are worse in liberal societies than they are elsewhere in the contemporary world. What is the evidence? Let’s briefly consider each in turn.

Western countries do assume more household debt than others elsewhere, and they consume more too, although the latter is likely a byproduct of their superior prosperity. Are they more selfish? The USA is the second most generous nation in the world, after … Myanmar. If we experience more anomie—and that be understood as Durkheim defined it—we should commit more suicide than do people in illiberal countries. Do we? No. In fact, the data is unreliable, but seems to suggest that suicide is more common under the illiberal regimes of Asia. And what about Western marriages? There is no doubt that they are more fragile than those outside the West. As for our environmental record, is it really worse than the rest of the world? It depends how you measure that. Our governmental policies are the best in the world, even if we consume far more energy and resources than do individuals elsewhere, if only because of our wealth. As for antibiotics, finally, Turkey uses more than any other “European” nation, and the last decade has seen it become increasingly illiberal.

On the whole, it would thus seem, liberal societies are both succeeding and failing. These are problems everywhere, and these answers argue that liberal societies are as good (or bad) at solving them, all told, as are other regimes. But none of these answers is from Why Liberalism Failed, which doesn’t ask any of these questions. This surprising omission would be justified if its argument were not comparative. And to be fair, largely it is not. Deneen spends most of his book arguing that liberalism has failed by its own lights. In other words, liberalism set out to make us more free, but has ended by making us less so. “Less free” is still a comparison, however, so its terms should be made explicit.

The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, United States

Are we less free than we were before Western societies fell under the spell of liberalism (in the last four centuries)? Deneen does not say, nor would an argument to that effect be credible. Life expectancy then was roughly half what it is today, and many misfortunes that would have killed or incapacitated us in the 17th century are easily avoided or remedied now. Nothing says unfreedom like death, dismemberment, and disease. In any case, this is not the proper comparison, which is this: Are we less free than we would have been had our societies not fallen under the spell of liberalism? Again, Deneen does not say, but he can be forgiven the silence, as the question is barely intelligible. Who would we be, after all, if Hobbes and Locke had been ignored, if the peace of Westphalia had not been achieved, if the American revolutionaries had constituted a theocracy, never mind if Hitler had won?

Perhaps we would be living in the Holy Roman Empire, or some colony thereof, only with a green revolution, bullet trains, high-speed internet, and modern medicine. Perhaps, but more likely not. When in 1793 Britain sent to China its first envoy, Lord Macartney, he brought with him some of the marvels of European science and technology, products of the revolution that involved political as well as theoretical changes. He hoped to demonstrate the value, for China, of trading with a nation that had made such remarkable advances. Unimpressed, the Qianlong Emperor dismissed both the envoy and his exhibits, which he treated as tribute, writing to King George III that he saw “no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”

The example is not Deneen’s, but it illustrates his point that the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke accompanied the mastery of nature sought by both and celebrated by Bacon. The Qianlong Emperor seems to have intuited the same deep connection between the political and theoretical sides of this modern European revolution. With a simple gesture, he expelled both from his ancient Asian kingdom. Without liberal political innovation, similarly, the West too might never have revolutionized its science and technology. A West like 18th century China, one that had never fallen under the spell of liberalism, would thus be doubly hard—let’s face it: impossible—for us to imagine.

So, returning to the problem of comparison, how does Deneen decide that liberalism has made us less free? To which era, nation, or possible world is he making his unflattering comparison? Ironically, he points to the little communities of a religious minority that has flourished under liberalism’s big wing: the Amish.

I. Less Free?

When a tornado destroys houses in an Amish community, neighbors come together, feed and shelter the victims, then help them rebuild what they have lost. Their charity not only testifies to the strength of their community; it constitutes it. For the Amish remain deeply committed to one another, and such commitments are the fabric of their communal life. The weave of this fabric is also evident when the victim is responsible for his own misfortune. For example, if one of them gets drunk, starts a fire, and accidentally burns down his own house, they will again come together to help, forgiving him in order to keep him within the community, but he will have to face them in person, knowing that he has burdened them with his sin. His restoration is not anonymous. It is both communal and moral.

These Amish practices strengthen their social fabric through the supervision of vice and the cultivation of virtue. Thus, when they consider whether or not to accept a new technology into their community, they have only one criterion: “Will this or won’t it help support the fabric of our community?” Electricity and cars are famously forbidden, for the same reason that prohibits zippers and insurance. The logic is not always clear to outsiders, but in the case of insurance, it is especially instructive. If the Amish were to permit this financial technology, they would no longer need to rely so heavily on each other in misfortune. Nor would there be any moral dimension to their restoration. They would turn instead to their indifferent insurers. What had been communal and moral relationships sustaining their commitments to one another would become amoral and impersonal ones with corporations. Insurance, in short, would tear at the fabric of their society.

Amish family, Lyndenville, New York

How, then, do our liberal societies tolerate insurance? A company offers you a policy informed by actuarial science, precise calculations of risk and the likelihood of profit. Choosing this company and this policy, rather than that of another, you do your own, less formal calculations of expense and probability. If your house is later destroyed, an assessor whom you will not know will investigate the damage. He will be mindful of the legal conditions of your contract, the facts of your case, but no moral criteria will enter into his assessment. Your character is not his concern. If he grants your claim, his company will draw from the pool of money collected from its other customers. You will not know them, nor will they know you. Needless to say, there will be no moral judgment. Anonymous individuals in a moral vacuum, the insured relate to each other through the corporation, the market in which it competes, and the state that enforces obedience to its rules.

Liberal societies not only tolerate such anemic relationships, according to Deneen, they foster them. Why? Why would a society tear its individuals from their communities and moralities, exacerbating the social ills mentioned earlier: selfishness, anomie, divorce, and so on? When small communities and distinct moralities are vibrant, the way Amish life is supposed to be, individuals can acquire the virtues of character more readily because its development can be closely supervised. Exemplars can be known intimately and imitated, character vices can be observed in the young and corrected by their elders before becoming habitual. No one, in short, will grow up to be selfish. But as liberalism enervates these communities, through hundreds of technologies such as insurance, individuals cannot receive this character training so reliably. As a result, they turn out less virtuous, less self-controlled, less able to manage their inevitable clashes of interest.

If this has been a mistake of liberalism, a wise leader could devise new liberal policies or at least a new liberal rhetoric to correct it. But this has not been a mistake. On the contrary, as Deneen tells it, deracination was liberalism’s original purpose. The founding figures, especially Hobbes and Locke, conceived society as a contract, one that would be ratified by anonymous individuals seeking to maximize their interests in a state of nature. What is the state of nature, after all, but people who have been shorn of their moral and cultural attachments? But as postmodern critics have been saying for two generations, there never were such people, except under liberalism, especially in its final throes. “This concept,” Deneen writes, “effectively brings into being what was merely theoretical in its imaginary state of nature.” Liberalism is not a contract between deracinated individuals, therefore, but a philosophy and a host of correlative technologies for their production.

Liberalism takes people in what is truly their natural state—when they are integral members of families and villages, churches and synagogues, schools and guilds—and reconceives them independent of those communities, as atomic individuals. The interests of individuals in almost any circumstances will clash, but when they have each received character training—say, in self-control—these clashes can be managed more often than not by themselves. When they have been raised without a rigorous character training, outside the kind of moral communities liberalism has weakened, individuals with clashing interests will need protection from one another. They will not be able to manage conflict on their own. After robbing them of self-government, liberalism promises to govern them instead, guaranteeing that at least contracts will be honored and laws obeyed. The state thus becomes sovereign, the only legitimate power.

Boulder, United States

Classical liberalism envisioned a minimal state, one that would ensure national defense and a functioning market. But the market alone weakens communities, as the example of the Amish and insurance was meant to show. Other examples are not hard to imagine. The free flow of capital and labor, for instance, loosens social bonds. A young worker must leave his hometown to find work, losing all the relationships he built there, moving to another town faraway, where no one knows him, or bothers to try, knowing he’ll be gone with the next market correction. A church begins to flourish as a town begins to boom, only to lose half its members when the local factory closes. And so on. In these ways and others, classical liberalism, which made no open attack on social forms, compromised them nonetheless by isolating individuals from one another through an emphasis on political and economic freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville

De Tocqueville was the first to notice the importance of “mediating institutions” to American democracy: the church, the town council, the association of laborers, etc. He was also the first to observe what happened when they wither. The individual is immediately free of their strictures, but eventually the state becomes more powerful. “Individualism is not the alternative to statism,” Deneen reports him thinking, “but its very cause.” Yet the causation is more complex, and cyclical. It’s more accurate to say, as he himself adds, that “individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive.” For as the state grows in both legitimacy and power, a self-perpetuating cycle begins. Now liberalism can pursue more effectively its campaign against local communities and their social norms.

“The first wave of liberalism had successfully undermined the old aristocratic political and economic norms,” Deneen argues, “but concluded that its very successes had generated new pathologies that needed a reinvented liberalism.” The first wave was classical liberalism, whose economic freedom produced the miseries of late 19th-century factory-towns such as Pittsburgh or Liverpool. Next, then, came a reinvented liberalism, progressivism, to remedy this misery. This is the kind of “liberalism” we know from today’s journalism and political rhetoric: big government, ambitious social policies, regulation of local differences according to national standards. The more successful was its campaign against mediating institutions, Deneen argues, the more isolated individuals became from one another. The more isolated individuals became, the more desperately they felt the need for state salvation. Liberalism became the solution for the problems it had by now caused.

II. More Free?

“As the authority of social norms dissipates,” Deneen concludes, “they are increasingly felt to be residual, arbitrary, and oppressive, motivating calls for the state to actively work toward their eradication.” Of all such calls in recent decades, the most effective have been for the eradication of social norms against homosexuality, particularly gay marriage. In this book, Deneen does not mention Obergefell (the Supreme Court decision making gay marriage legal in every state). This is odd, as the political drama around it is a perfect illustration of his argument.

Shortly after it was delivered, in June 2015, he responded to it with these words: “The insistence that all must conform to the new, official definition of marriage that no civilization has ever endorsed before yesterday seems to be more aptly compared to life under Communism.” Communism is the paradigm of a totalitarian regime, one where every social function—from family to education to work to worship—is assumed by the state. There are no churches at all, or if they be tolerated, they are supervised closely by the bureaucracy. So likewise for the other mediating institutions: clubs, schools, unions, local governments. Using this hint, and the argument of Why Liberalism Failed, we can easily reconstruct the response of Deneen, and other like-minded Catholics, to Obergefell.

Before liberalism, people regulated their marriages according to local custom, often (but not always) spelled out in religious definitions of marriage. These definitions were clearest among the Catholics, who have articulated “the conjugal view”: that marriage is between one man and one woman, for the purpose of procreation and education of children. After Europe and North America fell under the spell of liberalism, however, individuals seeking to marry had to turn increasingly from the altar to the court-house. (And then eventually, too, to the market, as witnessed by the explosion of the wedding industry.) With each generation, as control of the institution by state and market grew firmer, the authority of religious definitions dissipated.

In time, their insistence on heterosexual union, not to mention orientation toward procreation, began to seem arbitrary and oppressive. First to fall were the norms against contraception. Next were bound to be norms against gay marriage. Calls for the state to eradicate this oppression accelerated in the early 21st century, culminating with Obergefell. Soon thereafter, as Deneen’s argument predicts, these calls would extend to the market, as witnessed by Masterpiece Cakeshop.

In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen usually bypasses such controversies, if ever he mentions them, in order to map the whole liberal landscape, showing where its tectonic plates are, making the places, if not the times, of its inevitable earthquakes predictable. Was Obergefell such an earthquake? Yes, inasmuch as it shook the foundation of a longstanding institution. But like every earthquake—which, when seen from a distance, will appear as destructive of some forms of life, but also a fertile new beginning for others—it makes possible a new foundation, or perhaps even a new institution. This returns us to the main question, whether liberalism makes us more free, as it claims to do, or less free, as Deneen argues.

Gays who wish to marry obviously feel more free because they can now do so nationwide. Catholics who sought civil confirmation of their definition of marriage now feel it more precarious, and themselves less free. Their fears would be reasonable only if Obergefell and other progressive decisions rob Catholics of their religious freedom. Masterpiece Cakeshop, they fear, is the canary in that mine. But Deneen is not pleading on behalf of Catholics, or the Amish, or any other religious minority that feels besieged by liberalism. He claims to be addressing all citizens, liberals included, who want to be more free. Liberalism, he’s arguing, is making you less free, whoever you are, by replacing your communities with state and market; it does so with your consent by tricking you into thinking yourself more free. People who fought decades for the right to marry, and the majority who now endorse that right, will not be so easily convinced.

But Deneen’s notion of freedom is not likely to be theirs, and this is an endless source of misunderstanding. The common notion of freedom nowadays he calls “self-expression.” According to it, if I desire to eat sweets, then I am free if and only if I am able to eat them: I can afford them, e.g., they are available for me to buy, and so on. Freedom is thus understood as a power over the objects of desire. Additionally, all desires are created equal by this notion; none is better than any other. Whether I desire to help my neighbor or hurt him, I am free in the sense of self-expression if and only if I have the power to achieve whatever it is I wish. For any desire, we must ask ourselves, can we acquire its objects or not? If so, we are free; if not, not. This notion of freedom was certainly present in antiquity, but Plato and Aristotle elaborated another notion of freedom, “self-mastery.”

Chantal guillon macarons

This deeper notion requires, first of all, an evaluation of desires; they are not all created equal. Let us say that you know refined sugar is unhealthy, and so you resolve not to eat sweets any longer. You now consider your desire to eat sweets as bad, or at least inferior to your desire to be healthy. When you can eat them, then, you are still free in the sense of self-expression, but if you were to do so, you would show yourself to be a slave to your desire for them. You would have failed in self-mastery. By contrast, if you were to abstain from eating them, even with them present, you would have succeeded. You would be free in this deeper sense. Freedom is thus understood as a power over desires themselves. It is acquired through rigorous character training—here Deneen agrees with Plato, Aristotle, and most thinkers of the classical and Christian traditions—which is available only within robust moral communities. We all become less free, as a result, when liberalism weakens them.

To see Obergefell as a defeat for freedom, next, Deneen must add an evaluation of sexual desire(s). Not surprisingly, his particularly Catholic evaluation works perfectly: desire for sex is good when it is a desire for sex within a properly conjugal union; bad, otherwise. Insofar as gay marriages are not properly conjugal—they do not meet the conditions of “the conjugal view,” any more than do polyamorous relationships, heterosexual couples who use contraception, or the infinite varieties of sexual unions deemed sinful by the Catholic Church—then the sexual desires they condone are bad, or “disordered,” as Catholics are wont to say. To condone homosexual sexual desire, as Obergefell did by honoring it with the institution of marriage, is to flatten the hierarchy of desire necessary to make sense of self-mastery in sexual life. What remains may be a rumspringa of self-expression. But, in Deneen’s estimation, we have traded gold for bronze.

Or rather, we have traded gold for iron. For Deneen did not pull any punches in his response to Obergefell; as such, it is more candid than the even-handed approach of Why Liberalism Failed. Following his comparison of progressive liberalism to Communism, on this topic anyway, he argues that it requires accepting a lie, “the lie that the conjugal view of marriage has as little basis in reason or nature as denial of basic rights to people based upon the color of their skin.”10 This was indeed a tactic of the gay marriage lobby—comparing the conjugal view of conservative Christians to the miscegenation laws of the racist South—and the way Deneen resists it in his response reveals some of the unspoken premises of his book. After all, miscegenation laws were supported by local communities who had their own particular moral codes. Presumably, Deneen thinks the US government was right to strike down those bans, weaken those communities, and undermine their racism. If so, liberalism’s encroachment is not always bad. For consistency’s sake, then, why isn’t it also good on behalf of marriage equality?

The miscegenation analogy fails, according to him, because “the analogy’s success has relied on the loud and insistent demand that we not notice, nor regard as relevant or germane, the fact that men and women are different, and most importantly, that their sexual union is oriented toward reproduction.” Men and women are different, granted, but their sexual union is oriented toward reproduction? The evidence for that view has been presented by Robert George (et al.) as part of their general defense of the conjugal view of marriage. The appeal of this evidence is supposed to be that it does not rely in any way upon religious revelation, basing itself instead on premises whose truth is discernible by natural reason. These premises are supposed to be an Aristotelian understanding of the human body.

For the Aristotelian, the eye is for seeing, the intestines are for digesting, and the genitals (male and female) are for procreation. These purposes are natural. Thus, marriage (understood conjugally) is a natural as well as a social institution: it puts man and woman into a relationship in which the natural purposes of their genitals may be truly fulfilled. Like many other Catholic intellectuals, Deneen seems to have found this evidence persuasive. But no one who has incorporated Darwin into his thinking could follow him. Nowhere in George’s book is Darwin mentioned, so nowhere is there any confrontation with the fact that natural teleology—the view that things in nature, especially organisms and their parts, have inherent purposes—is no longer credible.

Charles Darwin

One of Deneen’s philosophical heroes in this book is Aristotle (along with Aquinas, Burke, Tocqueville, and Wendell Berry). Aristotle’s thought is still valuable in many areas, not least ethics and politics. But as a biology, Darwin rendered it obsolete it, just as Galileo and Newton dispensed with it as an astronomy. How could thinkers as subtle and learned as Deneen and George still operate as if the Darwinian revolution had never happened? This is a sad but general fact of the humanities and social sciences now, more than a century and a half after the publication of The Origin of the Species. Catholic moral thinkers are in this respect like feminists, who have resisted the challenges that Darwinism brings to their premises not by presenting objections to it (however good or bad), but instead by ignoring it altogether.

Ironically, this is one of three criticisms Deneen marshals against the professors of the humanities in today’s academy. They have denied the relevance of biology to humanistic conclusions. Human nature, or at least gender, they suppose to be “socially constructed.” In this challenge, Deneen sees an echo of the original liberal gesture: the individual, free of all inheritance, whether cultural tradition or natural evolution, masters not only his social associations, but now even his own body. Lest we forget, Deneen values self-mastery, but not of this sort. Aristotelian and Christian self-mastery is achieved by the training of character, re-orienting desires toward God. The liberal, by contrast, takes his desires for granted, wanting instead to make his body and associations conform to them. If these are the new goals of the liberal arts, “students and administrators are voting with their feet and pocketbooks to support the areas that show more promise for mastering nature,” namely the sciences.

To this neglect of the sciences, Deneen adds two other criticisms of today’s humanities education. Generally speaking, professors have been consummate liberals: seeking to liberate themselves and their students, they have ended by compromising liberty. So their collective embrace of postmodernism and “the hermeneutics of suspicion” turned the study of liberal arts into an attack on the classic texts that constitute these disciplines. Rather than conveying the wisdom of our tradition, professors of the humanities have aimed to expose the inegalitarian prejudices of its canon before dismantling it altogether. Whatever their aim, however, their effect has been to discourage students from majoring in their fields. After all, why would a freshman devote her formative years to the study of Greek philosophy, medieval history, or English literature, if the lesson is simply that the authors of these texts were more sexist, racist, and homophobic than we are?

Finally, professors started using their classrooms and scholarship for liberating, egalitarian political agendas (“social justice”) more than for the pursuit of truth. This appeared liberal, inasmuch as the goal was freedom for oppressed groups, but it proved to be illiberal when it clashed with the older liberal ideals of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Here, the attack on liberty in the name of liberal arts has been most direct. Now, certain questions cannot be asked, nor can certain positions be maintained, lest the impersonal forces of government (Title IX prosecutions) and marketplace (demands for firing) be brought to bear.

In one way or another, and sometimes all three at once, liberal arts professors have betrayed the original purpose of their disciplines: to free minds by contact with the best, wisest, most beautiful products of our cultural patrimony. By rejecting this patrimony, for the sake of “liberation,” experts in the liberal arts have harmed their fields in a characteristically liberal way (failing, that is, thanks to their success). As Deneen summarizes his argument, “professors in the humanities showed their worth by destroying the thing they studied.” But he doesn’t blame professors exclusively for this destruction. It has been exacerbated by the demands of both the market and politicians of both parties who disparage the liberal arts. Students are leaving the studies once thought to free the mind, and flocking to disciplines one considered servile, often saying that because of the economy they have no choice.

What professors cannot admit, however, is that students are not really rejecting the liberal arts; for they have rarely been exposed to them at all. “If renaissance is to come,” Deneen concludes, “it must be from a reconstituted education in the liberal arts.”

III. Failing by Succeeding?

The road to this cultural renaissance, as Deneen maps it, is fraught with peril. Freedom of every sort is under threat from liberalism, including the freedom as self-expression that it originally promised. Surveillance and regulation increasingly inhibit political freedom. Growing debt and income inequality increasingly inhibit economic freedom. Science and technology, the pride of Western societies since the liberal revolution, also inhibit our freedom—by alienating us from each other. Every generation panics over the alienating consequences of its own innovations: rapid transit and the megalopolis, telecommunications and the internet, most recently social media and artificial intelligence.

Surveillance camera

According to Deneen, however, the targets of our technological panics are misplaced. The whole point of liberalism was to alienate us from our traditions, communities, and moralities, so it is no wonder that liberal societies keep producing technologies with that effect. In other words, we have gotten the technologies, and the alienation, we set out to achieve. As before, the technology of insurance—this time health insurance in particular—makes Deneen’s point most clearly. Americans on the left want to see it socialized, in the manner of Canada or the United Kingdom, while those on the right want it to remain in the marketplace, where companies should operate with minimal government meddling. This has been an American debate since the Truman administration, becoming one of the most divisive issues in the country after Obama’s election.

To most commentators, this debate appears to be over political first principles. That is why it has been so divisive. But Deneen shows that in fact it is an internecine debate among liberals—progressive liberals of the left, and classical liberals of the right. As such, the health-insurance debate is a trap: it presents as very different options what in fact are two varieties of the same approach. For when we compare the American approach to insurance with that of the Amish, who handle misfortune through community and morality, we see clearly that liberalism handles it through individuals and some impersonal force—the right favoring markets, the left favoring government. The liberal market is said to be “free” and the liberal governments are said to be “democratic,” but when the forces that shape both are remote and complex in the best instances, corrupt and rigged in the worst, the individual in a liberal society begins to feel trapped.

Turning to politics to free herself, this individual sees two options, the Right and the Left. Each presents itself as the solution to the crisis, its opponent as the obstacle to her liberation. Flip between FoxNews and MSNBC to sense the monotony of this conflict. Both sides more or less say: if only the other side would shut up and go away, we would be free! And yet together, according to Deneen, they are the crisis. The apparent opposition of parties conceals the deep harmony of liberalism, which continues to alienate its citizens from one another, rendering the state ever more powerful. Oscillating between left and right, the individual in a liberal society is like someone trapped in a net, becoming more entangled the more she struggles. For in their own ways, one by laissez-faire capitalism, the other by government regulation of everyday life, both Right and Left have attacked the mediating institutions that would have been properly positioned, had they survived, to help her.

Could our complex health crisis really be solved by such institutions, practices, and virtues? Could they ensure that every citizen gets good medical treatment when necessary, that costs are contained, and that avoidable public health crises (such as obesity and addiction) are minimized? Deneen does not spell this out, but we can imagine. If we lived more like the Amish, would training in character keep us fit and drug free? The statistics and rumors suggest as much. Costs could be contained by the same moral pressures, which would inhibit unnecessary procedures for profit. As for getting good care to those who need it, there’s every reason to believe the charitable spirit that rebuilds neighbors’ houses would extend to expensive interventions. What is harder to imagine, as mentioned earlier, is a traditional, non-liberal society making the kinds of medical advances we have enjoyed since the twin revolutions of liberalism and empirical science in the 17th century.

Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Brussels, Belgium

Deneen supplies plenty of other examples of our alienating technologies, if only ever hinting how the communities they’ve destroyed might be restored. Family farms have largely been replaced by agribusiness and the legal regime of regulation and protection negotiated by governments both domestic and foreign. We have gained the opportunity to eat strawberries in winter, but are causing untold environmental damage and have lost our connection with the land and those who cultivate it. Or, in another example, the local bank has largely been replaced by international conglomerates. Someone seeking a mortgage in the U.S. a few generations ago had to present himself to a banker who, with an appraisal not only of his income but also of his character and reputation, would assess his ability to honor the contract. In this century, notoriously, mortgages were dispensed by impersonal agents and bundled into complex financial instruments for purchase abroad. The result was a financial crisis that hit the Western societies hard, emboldening critics of liberalism such as Deneen, but also leaders of illiberal countries, most notably China.

Perhaps it’s possible to recover the agricultural and financial connections by buying and banking local, not to mention tilling your own backyard and staying away from credit cards, but what about all the other communal and moral connections that have been severed by four centuries of liberalism? It is hardly possible for one person, or even a small group of people, to forge them anew. The Amish have managed to preserve theirs, but at great cost. Who among us, after all, would choose their social fabric, thick and warm as it may be, by foregoing electricity? No one reading this article online, obviously. Nor Deneen himself, who has an active Twitter account. However many individuals might make that choice, it is obviously impossible—and undesirable—for our whole society to go that route. This is why international politics should not be ignored in a book on this subject. To do so is to spin out a dream.

The Amish flourish under the wing of liberalism, as has been stated, so it is ironic to have them play a central role in a critique of liberalism. Pause to contrast the religious liberty they enjoy with the repression suffered by religious minorities under our illiberal rivals: the Falun Gong or Uighurs in China, for instance, or Christians in most Muslim nations. Now imagine liberal societies travelling farther along their current path, losing confidence in the justice and wisdom of their practices and philosophy. A cohort of citizens will eventually arrive who will see no merit in fighting, not to mention dying, to preserve what the illiberal swaths of the world already reject: the individual and her rights to decide such matters for herself. Far enough along this path, in fact, citizens of ostensibly liberal regimes will no longer remember what that means. Maybe we are already there.


This essay is Part I of a two-part review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. You can read Part II here.

Patrick Lee Miller is a philosopher teaching at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2012), and co-editor of Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (Hackett, 2015). His recent philosophical writing uses Platonism to address current problems such as gender, sexuality, child psychology, pedagogy, virtual-reality, spirituality, indecision, honesty, and liberal government. His faculty page can be found here. 

Filed under: Features, Long Read, Philosophy, Review


Patrick Lee Miller is a philosopher teaching at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2012), and co-editor of Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (Hackett, 2015). His recent philosophical writing uses Platonism to address current problems such as gender, sexuality, child psychology, pedagogy, virtual-reality, spirituality, indecision, honesty, and liberal government. His faculty page can be found here: http://www.duq.edu/academics/faculty/patrick-lee-miller


  1. Bubblecar says

    “The insistence that all must conform to the new, official definition of marriage that no civilization has ever endorsed before yesterday seems to be more aptly compared to life under Communism.”

    Except that there is, of course, no such insistence. Anyone is free to entertain any notion of marriage that they prefer.

    Legal recognition of gay marriage refers to the law, not to the beliefs of individuals. And the law was changed to recognise same-sex marriage because it was acknowledged that the only reason it did not previously do so was due to unjustified anti-homosexual prejudice.

    Deneen’s book sounds like a load of traditional religious gibberish that doesn’t deserve this amount time and attention wasted on it.

    Liberalism will remain a strong and guiding philosophy long after Catholicism has been rejected by all as the cynical scam it really is.

    • JackbeThimble says

      I’m generally a supporter of taking the time and effort to smack down bad arguments from past decades whenever they pop up, if only so that the next generation gets a fresh demonstration of how stupid they are. Civic virtue points to Patrick Miller for performing this tedious but necessary service.

    • defmn says

      // Liberalism will remain a strong and guiding philosophy long after Catholicism has been rejected by all as the cynical scam it really is. //

      That is quite the claim. I am an atheist who would love to share your optimism that cynical scams lack the ability to achieve longevity but 2018 years of evidence to the contrary leads me to humbler conclusions.

    • Bert LeChef says

      Your post is devoid of content and does little more than makes claims that, while consistent with the liberal ethos, offers no reasons to take your claims seriously. It is merely begging the question. The stock accusations of prejudice along with thinly veiled anti-Catholic bigotry (another liberal tradition with a long history in the US that persists to this day) is tiresome and frankly inane. From the perspective of a two thousand year old institution, your clownish overconfidence about the triumph of liberalism and the death of Catholicism is all the more amusing given that liberalism is a mere four centuries old and already spiraling into chaos. It frankly has always been on this terminal trajectory given the inherent and self-destructive tensions within the principles of liberalism themselves. For what shall happen when reality frustrates one of my desires? So much worse for reality!

      You say that anyone is free to entertain any notion of marriage they prefer. But if marriage is just a legal fiction as you claim, then legal recognition (your words) cannot truly occur since the precondition for any kind of recognition is that something must be recognizable, that is to say, true. If “marriage”, on the other hand, is not word describing a widely entertained fiction but the word we use to describe what is essentially a kind of relationship rooted in human nature and the essential complementarity of the sexes, not something governments have the power to create through fiat but only the moral obligation to recognize, then legal recognition cannot be extended to hollow concepts like gay marriage without falling into error. Indeed, the legal recognition of gay marriage is precisely an example of liberal government’s expansion of its domain of concerns. Worth adding is that no appeals to religious doctrine need be made. Opposition to gay marriage on the basis of Aristotelian arguments is purely philosophical. That the Catholic Church teaches these truths does not make them matters of faith.

    • Augustus Templeton says

      Yes, Ancient Sparta defined marriage heterosexually because it was homophobic. And it was Catholic as well.

      • Augustus Templeton says

        Man: Hey, I would like to buy you a drink.

        Woman: (flashes her wedding ring at him)

        Man: So?

        Woman: I’m married, dumbass.

        Man: So?

        Woman: Are you really THAT stupid? I’m married. That means that I am off the menu. Get it?

        Man: Oh, I get it. You think that marriage means the forsaking of all other lovers, right?

        Woman: Hey, Einstein, that’s not what I think marriage means. That is what marriage means, you creep.

        Man: No, it doesn’t. That may be what your particular religious tradition says it means, but that’s NOT what marriage means according to Rawlsian Public Reason.

        Woman: What the hell?

        Man: Before you throw your mojito in my face—and you don’t want to do that, anyway, because the mojitos here are just scrumptious—

        Woman: Well, yes, okay, you have to go down to Miami to find any better.

        Man: True that. They use their own mint, did you know that?

        Woman: Yeah, fine, don’t change the subject. Why shouldn’t I throw something else in your face, you creeper?

        Man: For the simple reason that you cannot expect me to share your particularly religious understanding of marriage. We live in a secular liberal democracy, not a theocracy.

        Woman: What does that have anything to with your trying to hit on a happily married woman?

        Man: Look, you support same-sex marriage, right?

        Woman: Ah, geez, now you’re suggesting that I’m a Nazi. God, you really know how to flatter a girl. No wonder you’re still a loser, prowling around in bars.

        Man: Of course, you’re not a Nazi. Of course, you support marriage equality. I would not dream of suggesting otherwise.

        Woman: Yeah, so what’s your point? I support marriage equality, so I must be okay with adultery?

        Man: You promise not to throw anything in my face if I answer?

        Woman: Oh, no, now I want to hear this. You’ve already stuck your foot in your mouth. I want to hear you gag on it. It’s the femme fatale in me.

        Man: Okay, fine. Now, remember how the bigots argued against marriage equality. They said that the marriage was for procreation, and same-sex couples can’t procreate, and, therefore, they can’t get married.

        Woman: Yeah, and that was really stupid. Because the law always allowed sterile couples to marry.

        Man: And you could get a marriage license without having to take a fertility test.

        Woman: Of course. Man, were those bigots just stupid.

        Man: So, marriage can’t be about procreation or even fertility because the law does not require couples to procreate or be fertile to marry, right?

        Woman: Yes, yes, yes. This is getting tedious.

        Man: Okay, so, marriage cannot be about what the law does not require?

        Woman: Yes, Socrates, yes. Get to the point already.

        Man: Well, does the law require a couple to take a sexual fidelity test for a marriage license?

        Woman: Er, well, that’s just assumed.

        Man: Are open marriages invalid in the eyes of the law?

        Woman: Er, ah, I— I don’t know.

        Man: Obviously, they aren’t. Couples who want to sleep around are as entitled to a marriage license as couples who do not. And you just agreed that marriage cannot be about what the law does not require. The law does not require sexual fidelity. Therefore, the Public Understanding of Marriage cannot include a concept of sexual fidelity. When you countered my sexual overtures with mention of your marital status, you were expecting me to understand marriage according to a particular religious tradition. I would not have expected that such a modern and enlightened woman as you at least seemed to be would be in the thrall of such backward theocratic thinking.

        Woman: Fuck you! (throws her mojito in his face and stomps out)

  2. While I always enjoy the escapism of a gripping declinist diatribe, Deneen’s argument that modernity is falling into the abyss (and that this is somehow all Liberalism’s fault), is absurd on its face. Steven Pinker’s new book (coincidentally out today) painstakingly catalogues broad modern progress; and it correctly attributes modern circumstances and gains to a much broader set of practices than a political ideology.

    Modern human societies (like ancient, pre-liberal ones) do face acute pressures, especially from the uneven distribution of natural advantages, the self-reinforcement of arbitrary sociological divisions, and the eventual ecological limits to aspects of growth. But it is preposterous to lay pressures such as these at the door of liberalism. Nor is a retreat to archaic norms and practices even remotely feasible in a world that needs to find a way to sustain what will be, by the end of this century, 11 billion intensely interconnected people.

    • It’s not too a good idea to measure human welfare solely in terms of material well-being. We have antibiotics, painless surgery, and lots of stuff, but our families are falling apart, marriage has become a joke, boys are taught to hate themselves, young women are miserable, babies are slaughtered in utero, the liberal West isn’t reproducing enough to replace its population, community is a matter for nostalgia, and anomie abounds. And meanwhile, Islamists gather at the periphery, ready to conquer a West so despondent and brainwashed by globalist progressivism it isn’t even willing to defend itself.

      • While I appreciate your concise if somewhat despairing counterargument, Rocco Cannoli, there is an evident scale problem in your measurement of the pros and cons of modern western technological society. Briefly, the fruits of the enlightenment have brought an astonishing reduction in extreme poverty (see Charts 1 and 2, in the Economist piece published March 30, 2017). That one dimension of gains alone — and there are others — trumps your entire list of cons.

        Still, let’s agree that minor repairs are necessary in the West, even if these are not uniquely repairs to Liberalism. We absolutely need a more robust social discourse and accompanying social movement that can push back against rampant misandry. Specifically, we must always insist that persistent targeting of the prestige of the male gender and its archetypes is a marker of shallow and bigoted thinking. We need to ensure that men and their advocates are present in every conversation that deals in policies that would deflate the potential of successive generations of boys. As for anomie and the closely related topic of mating, we must also accommodate better the preferences of some to be gregarious and sociable even in everyday public environments to encourage the rebuilding and branching of social networks (“community” as you say, but also pair bonding). (In Toronto recently there was a public awareness campaign aimed at encouraging public transit riders to keep to their own bubble and not intrude into that of others. But surely there are some riders — and office workers — who would prefer greater sociability.) Our culture, public amenities, and the market need to innovate to accommodate and encourage diverse preferences and various modes of sociability so as to reduce social isolation.

        As for your other comments: For the foreseeable future, Islamists are a toothless tiger, though we need to make sure that desertification via climate change doesn’t push them to the brink. And more humanitarian help is needed in the short-term. On birth-rate and abortion, let us work towards a broader decline in birth-rate across all of the countries of the world so as to provide more space for other members of the animal kingdom and give us time to figure out the move to a low carbon civilization. I’m a great fan of long-acting (injectable) forms of contraception. It sure beats the cost and complexities of abortion in the vast majority of cases and groups standing opposed should get out of the way. Finally, although I have not heard that young women are miserable, it is true that the young today are not, in general, getting laid enough. Let us hope that the sexual scripts can be revised quickly so that, in tandem with Tinder or what have you, the aggravations and friction in that particular market are reduced. Marriage, per se, certainly needs some structural reforms and innovations to make it more appealing in this new world, but we’ll leave that for another day.

  3. Joe Halstead says

    I was intrigued by the example of insurance as an amoral relationship and how that may work against the sense of community…

    …but on the other hand, no one will take larger economic risks with those who are uninsured.

    Has anyone ever created a Home Owner’s Association so large that they just form their own town? Such a town could include a local insurance company, put there to serve just those people, and everyone who lives there ponies up to it. You live in this town, you contribute to it.

  4. “… to spin out a dream”. Nice phrase, nicely used, in an excellent article. I’m grateful there are energetic, intelligent folk, such as this article’s author, who are willing to spend the time rationally pushing back against those such as the religiously befuddled who want to regulate others’ lives using contorted, motivated reasoning. Liberalism makes us less free? “Work sets you free”. (Oops, I may have just reinforced Godwin’s law)

  5. Dan Vesty says

    “Nowhere in George’s book is Darwin mentioned, so nowhere is there any confrontation with the fact that natural teleology—the view that things in nature, especially organisms and their parts, have inherent purposes—is no longer credible.” – This is a really interesting claim. As far as I’ve understood it, the entire edifice of Darwin’s view is built on the basic intuition that organisms adapt themselves to their environment in order to survive as organisms. So isn’t it perfectly scientifically accurate to claim that the purpose of organisms and their parts is survival ? Now sure, that’s not a transcendent or ‘higher’ purpose in the sense that religious thinkers would perhaps like there to be, and it’s sadly not an achievable purpose, as every organism fails in the end, but it’s not ‘no inherent purpose’ either. To me, it seems misguided to state that Darwinism makes belief in natural teleology impossible, when ‘survival’ – a completely teleological concept, is built in to the theory in the first place !

    • defmn says

      Correct. I have brought this point up before regarding an earlier article by this same author.

      Professor Miller seems to be under the impression that Aristotle’s teleological approach requires a ‘conscious purpose’ as opposed to simply an identifiable purpose.

      Bacon, in his ‘New Organon’ eliminates purpose by replacing Aristotle’s four ’causes’ to focus on his radically different conception of the ‘formal’ while dismissing the efficient, material and final cause as irrelevant to his enterprise of reformulating the purpose and mechanics of science.

      You will note that Bacon’s argument does not constitute a refutation of teleology – simply a dismissal as irrelevant. Over time the technological success engendered by this reformulation has morphed into a dismissal of teleology as incorrect but that is not the claim made by Bacon. The so called theory of evolution – which is not really a theory so much as an astute observation – in no manner undermines the idea of purpose in my opinion.

      A really enjoyable article on the whole. There is a lot in there and I want to re-read before posting further observations.

      • Appo7 says

        >Professor Miller seems to be under the impression that Aristotle’s teleological approach requires a ‘conscious purpose’ as opposed to simply an identifiable purpose.

        Sure, reproduction still has an identifiable purpose, but that does not mean it has meaning or normative value. In this sense the author is right Darwin has taken the magic out of natural teleology. If there is no grand scheme or conscious design I cannot possibly think of any reason why we should pay a lot of attention to natural ends.

        I’m about as excited about the fact that my reproductive organs are made for reproduction as I am about the fact that my fridge’s teleology is to keep my beer cold. Technically true, but you would be hard pressed to find a deep meaning in any of it.

        >The so called theory of evolution – which is not really a theory so much as an astute observation – in no manner undermines the idea of purpose in my opinion.

        It does undermine the idea of any god given or higher order purpose. Once you recognise that reproductive organs are just the expression of mindless self-replication, there’s not much to think about.

        • defmn says

          I think you are confusing Christianity’s interpretation of Aristotle’s writings with what Aristotle actually wrote. Your observations don’t really address anything that I said.

    • If I understood correctly, the argument was that gay marriage is considered a bad thing because it normalises gay sex, and gay sex in turn is a bad thing because it uses genitalia for something other than their proper purpose. In that sense, purpose has a moral implication. Darwinism eliminates the moral element and simply notes that an organism either breeds or it doesn’t.

      • defmn says

        Aristotle’s teleology has no component of morality in it that I am aware of. That would come later from Christian commentators.

        • Bert LeChef says

          That’s a bit misleading. Aristotelian ethics is grounded in teleology. It is good to act in accordance with our end and thus the ends of our faculties, among them the reproductive faculties. It is wrong to act against them. Human flourishing requires a respect for human nature, which is to say, the end of human life and all that it entails.

          • defmn says

            You are correct. I knew the moment I hit the ‘post; button that I shouldn’t have rushed the comment just because I was being rushed to go somewhere. I should have said that teleology has no component of morality in it in the sense that we moderns understand the meaning of the word morality.

            Thanks for the correction.

    • As far as I’ve understood it, the entire edifice of Darwin’s view is built on the basic intuition that organisms adapt themselves to their environment in order to survive as organisms. So isn’t it perfectly scientifically accurate to claim that the purpose of organisms and their parts is survival ?

      That’s Lamarck, not Darwin. Organisms mutate. Those who’s mutations are beneficial are more likely to reproduce than those who’s mutations are detrimental. There’s no teleology involved.

      • defmn says

        Any mention of Lamarck gets a big smile and thank you. Epigenetics seems to be catching up to him. Not my field of expertise but at least Lamarck had a theory as opposed to Darwin who really had nothing other than an observation but who gets all the credit for the idea of evolution – which was obviously not original on his part.

      • Dan Vesty says

        Apologies, I should have been much clearer in my original comment – I wasn’t talking about individual organisms so much as the species over time. I think the basic point still stands though – for example, how can you even use the word ‘beneficial’ to describe a mutation, if there isn’t some notion of survival as purpose lurking in the background of your thinking ? As defmn pointed out, ‘teleological’ as a concept doesn’t necessarily have to mean consciously chosen or aimed at, and certainly doesn’t have to have a moral component.

      • Bert LeChef says

        That doesn’t discredit teleology. In fact, Aristotle identified various kinds of final causes. Among them, efficient causality requires final causality because without it, you could not explain why, for example, striking a match tends to cause fire and not, say, cause an elephant to appear. This says nothing about the biologists inability to account for anything without appealing to the functions of organs, again, a teleological notion (and not dismissable as a merely useful shorthand without simultaneously discrediting biology). Teleology is NOT conscious intent, despite the obnoxiously stubborn misconception that it is.

  6. “…the market alone weakens communities, as the example of the Amish and insurance was meant to show. Other examples are not hard to imagine. ” This comment by the article author Patrick Lee displays the prime fallacy of Dezeen’s book: that emphasis on the individual somehow precludes individuals cooperating and forming viable communities. Rubbish. If anything, free trade and consumerism are the lynchpins in bringing people together, both locally and globally. We could no easier excise our hive instincts than remove our innate desire form freedom of expression as individuals. These things are not mutually exclusive, as the author seems to allude.

    • Bert LeChef says

      “Presumably, Deneen thinks the US government was right to strike down those bans, weaken those communities, and undermine their racism. If so, liberalism’s encroachment is not always bad. For consistency’s sake, then, why isn’t it also good on behalf of marriage equality?”

      I would argue that this needs to be understood in the context of subsidiary. It would be madness to suggest that the community is always right. Within the context of subsidiary, priority is defaulted to the most local level possible and concerns are promoted only when necessary. Thus, it can be argues that the federal government could intervene when it is clear that the local government is either incapable or unable to deal with a social aberration like institutional racism.

      “But no one who has incorporated Darwin into his thinking could follow him. Nowhere in George’s book is Darwin mentioned, so nowhere is there any confrontation with the fact that natural teleology—the view that things in nature, especially organisms and their parts, have inherent purposes—is no longer credible.”

      Rubbish. On the one hand, I am not surprised that a contemporary philosopher could possible be ignorant on the subject of teleology — most have little more than a silly, caricaturish understanding of Aristotle or Aquinas — but on the other hand, Miller has written on ancient Greek philosophy. Teleology is not incompatible with evolution. I suggest Miller brush up on the subject because he clearly does not understand the topic.

      “Lest we forget, Deneen values self-mastery, but not of this sort. Aristotelian and Christian self-mastery is achieved by the training of character, re-orienting desires toward God.”

      Reorienting desires toward God? That makes no sense and sounds like nothing Aristotelian or Christian that I’ve ever encountered. I am going to be very charitable here and understand that to mean that we ought to satisfy desires in moral ways, that is to say, toward their proper objects, to the proper degree, in the proper way, etc. The alternative is to imagine something absurd like a man who hasn’t eaten in a while deluding himself into thinking of God as a turkey sandwich.

      “The liberal, by contrast, takes his desires for granted, wanting instead to make his body and associations conform to them. If these are the new goals of the liberal arts, “students and administrators are voting with their feet and pocketbooks to support the areas that show more promise for mastering nature,” namely the sciences.”

      The modernist view of science as ultimately not an attempt to know the real, but a means of mastering nature. Could this not be the source of the grotesqueries of the last few centuries? The elevation of the will over the intellect.

  7. If I had to state my difficulty with liberalism as succinctly as possible, I would say that where there’s a free market of individuals where the best idea wins, the idea favoring efficiency, greater GDP and more money will always win. Inevitably, this means online marketplaces of authoritarian corporate powers (Google, Amazon) and the depersonalization of the human species. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do agree with Deneen’s critique in so far as individualism without the cultivation of self-governance (which comes from ancient cultures) ultimately results in a world run by numbers alone. We have forgotten something vital.

  8. Robert Darby says

    Judging from this review, there is nothing in Deneen’s book that could not be found in the Pope’s condemnation of liberalism in the (in)famous Syllabus of Errors (1864). It is another iteration of he old Catholic vision of a world of small, close-knit rural communities ruled over by their local priest, under the guidance of Mother Church. As to the rise of liberalism, Deneen gets cause and effect mixed up: liberalism did not cause a mass society based on contract rather than status or personal knowledge, it was a response to the fact that those traditional, organic societies had already broken down, necessitating the development of a new philosophy/ideology to cope with the new situation of fluidity and dynamism. And despite D’s nostalgia for an imaginary golden past, the new, flexible ideology has coped very well. If it fails, it will not be through internal contradictions, but as a result of a pincer movement from the authoritarian Right and the authoritarian Left – the same deadly combination that destroyed the Weimar Republic. (D might well reflect on the role of the Catholic Church in that outcome.)

  9. James says

    Is Liberalism still Liberalism?

    The changing definition of what it means to be liberal is the real issue here.

    Liberalism as it was once defined never failed.

    The new, mangled wreckage of a philosophy which shares the same name has clearly failed. Or to put a finer point on it: Has been destroyed.

  10. Aristotelian thinkers regularly push two falsehoods about homosexuality.

    First, that it is not found in nature, as the purpose of sex is procreation. Indeed, the original argument by The Athenian in The Laws was that we could tell same-sex acts were unnatural because animals do not engage in them. This is quite false, homosexuality has been documented in many species, including same-sex pairings (and even same-sex parentings, typically of an egg taken from another couple).

    Unless one use the conclusion (that homosexuality is unnatural) to police the allowable premises (a recurrent sin of teleological systems of thought) then it is not unnatural in the sense of not found in nature and if we say that such examples go against the purpose of sex and so don’t count, on what basis do we say that procreation is the sole purpose of sex? In fact, sex performs many functions in nature, some of which homosexual acts can do just fine.

    The second falsehood is to claim that same-sex marriage is unknown to human societies. In fact, many societies have recognised same-sex pairings that partook of the normative features of marriage, including appropriate gifts and public recognition. The complexity of reality is often not well coped with by teleological systems.

    • Chimps kill each other and fling their poo around, too.That something is found in nature doesn’t mean it’s good or something to be emulated. Further, there’s a difference between homosexuality and homosexual acts — or acts that look homosexual at first glance. I doubt that any animal in the world actually has exclusive attraction to members of its own sex (or much of a fantasy life at all, for that matter). And finally, dominance displays are not homosexual acts, but are often interpreted as such by folks who reallllllllly want it to be OK for men to bugger each other.

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  13. Jacob Mahoney says

    Such an interesting line of thought!

    The individual vs state vs community:
    Very intriguing!
    From the synopsis, there seems to be some bias in the sides presented; however, I would like to spend time to delve into this debate further before making any solid opinions of my own.

    We all bear witness to postmodernism, in it’s pop-culture form, in it’s oppression of free-thought, the right to be offended, and community values. I do believe reading and participating in a grounded debate about it’s roots seems like a great way to keep the liberal rudder straight!

    Safety, security, and prosperity are rights… or are they responsiblities? Maybe a bit of both?

    • Catholicism sees neither the family nor the individual as the “basic unit” of society; it sees the family as such. I think there’s wisdom in that.

  14. Gosh, I wonder what Darwin thought the genitals were for. I’m guessing that the “for” bit is the problem for those who think nothing exists “for” any purpose, but most everyone acts as if things exist for a reason anyway. So why not the genitals? We hear all the time, in essence, how lungs aren’t “for” smoking, so why not admonitions against socially damaging, high disease risk sex?

  15. Different T says

    Here’s a comment from a left-wing Liberal accelerationist named Uriello who posts on twitter under Cyborg Nomad:

    “no liberalism needs be so naive to the point of ignoring that society has purchase upon individuals, their choices and values. But such criticism fails to be consistent to the extent that it believes liberalism is an HONEST lie; a lie the liberal believes.

    Liberalism is an occultation, a camouflage. it is a social justification, an ideology, to push forward the autonomy of the instrumental.

    All liberalism ends up in: private property. Whatever justification is used (natural rights, utility, etc) is dispensable. Proudhon was arguably the first one to argue that “property is theft.” That is, that the social body is hurt by liberalism. In such uncovering argument, he already prefigured cybernetics in his “justice as balance.” Later in life he offered a new justification for property as the instrument for human self improvement. Every uncovering brings a new cover.

    So, for 21 century mutualism, liberalism needs not extend any further than “property makes us rich”, arguably Adam Smith’s original argument. Which is but a monkey-friendly version of Land’s “capital is self propelling.” Liberalism is thus the cult of capital (as Marx wished).

    It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean that liberalism considers that society is made up of individuals through a contract or that the state comes after (secondary) property as a right, rather than a fact (another important Proudhonian distinction).

    There’s no anthropological error here, there’s a very conscious camouflage for an ugly reality to become palatable to humans. Locke used God, Hobbes used mechanics, Rousseau used the general will (& thus fucked it up considerably with demotic regulation of property), Smith used wealth, Stuart Mill used happiness, Bentham used utility, Rawls used fairness, Hayek used information, Land uses intelligence.

    Every new term is a tool to keep monkeys sharp and hungry and hailing Moloch to the singularity. now, one can either accept that, or one can pursue hubris and see one’s dreams trampled underfoot by nemesis. socialism and absolutism have that in common that both choose the later. and repeatedly fail.”

    And if that seems like “rubbish,” try to guess who wrote this:

    “In short, he will remove from man the forces which are his own strength in order to give him other forces that are foreign to him and which he cannot use without the help of others. The more the natural forces are dead and eliminated, the greater and more lasting will be the acquired forces and the more institutions will be solid and perfect. In this way, once every citizen is nothing and can nothing, other than through all the others, and once the force acquired from the whole is equal or superior to the sum of natural forces of all individuals, then it can be said that legislation has reached the highest degree of perfection.”

  16. Different T says

    It’s very unfortunate, if not a betrayal, that Deneen named his book “Why Liberalism Failed” instead of the title of his older, preliminary lectures “The End of Liberalism” (playing off of Fukayama’s “The End of History”).

  17. Augustus Templeton says

    Dr. Miller seems to take for granted that the Obergefell ruling ‘condones’ homosexual intimacy. I want to take issue with this assumption and argue that the Obergefell re-definition of ‘marriage’ means that ‘marriage’ now has nothing to do with sexual or erotic relations and, thus, cannot be construed as a ‘condoning’ of any intimate relationship, be it hetero- or homosexual.

    It is rather curious that while Justice Anthony Kennedy in his seminal Obergefell Decision this past Friday mentions intimacy as an essential component of marriage, never once does he mention physical intimacy. This is a little odd because the legal definition of marital consummation is not any act of intimacy–such as a soul-baring conversation about one’s deep, personal feelings—but a physical one. Perhaps, this was merely an oversight, or, perhaps, Kennedy did not want to draw attention to the notion that the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage” is tantamount to societal approval of certain acts that many people still find abhorrent. Perhaps, Justice Kennedy simply did not want to inflame the homophobic bigots any more than he had to.

    Or, maybe, Kennedy’s silence on the rôle of physical intimacy in “marriage” indicates an acknowledgement, albeit tacit, that the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage” has nothing to do with the societal approval of whatever same-sex couples may do to express physical intimacy because the re-definition of marriage required to accommodate same-sex couples requires an abandonment of the notion of marital consummation altogether.

    Marital consummation can’t simply be re-defined or expanded because no concept of marital consummation will cover both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. The English Parliament tried to do so when it legally recognized same-sex “marriage” and failed. It just cannot be done.

    If you define marital consummation as coitus, then you exclude all same-sex couples, and that’s just heterosexist bigotry. But if you define marital consummation more broadly to include any penetration, then you’ve still excluded Lesbians who eschew strap-ons and fisting and gay men who prefer frottage.

    And even if you re-define it to mean anything that leads to an orgasm, well, then you’ve just made any legally coherent definition of marital consummation impossible. Given that there are as many kinks as there are fantasies, it would be impossible for the law to acknowledge every single potentially orgasmic act. What? Two dacryphiliacs request an annulment because of Sjögren’s Syndrome? Can an autagonistophiliac marriage be annulled because of stage fright?

    In short, what constitutes consummation becomes hopelessly subjective, thereby making it impossible for the law to acknowledge any objective or coherent concept of marital consummation. Thus, the law will have to jettison it altogether and therewith the idea that marriage has anything at all to do with sexual activity or physical intimacy of any sort. If “marriage” then has nothing to do with sexual relations or physical intimacy, then it cannot be said that “marriage” constitutes societal approval of any physical relationship, be it heterosexual or homosexual.

    “Marriage” becomes no more than a friendship, and if the state still wants to encourage that these friendships be exclusive by means of various sanctions for adultery–be they criminal penalties, as is still the case in the military, or simply possible grounds for a fault-based divorce–then obviously adultery must be re-defined. It can no longer be understood as extra-marital sexual relations because “marriage” no longer is a sexual relationship. It is, to repeat, simply a friendship, and, therefore, “adultery” would have to be extra-marital friendship.

    Same-sex “marriage” is a patent absurdity.

    • Augustus Templeton says

      Dr. Miller once told me in a private e-mail that he thought the anti-miscegenation analogy was false. Now it seems that he has changed his mind because he apparently needs Dr. Deneen to supply him with more arguments for the analogy’s falsity. Okay, fine, here’s one.

      The primary argument against interracial marriage AND co-habitation was the prevention of interracial breeding. The opponents of “marriage equality” NEVER argued against same-sex co-habitation and NEVER EVER cited same-sex breeding as a reason for their opposition to the civil recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ for the GLARINGLY OBVIOUS reason that same-sex breeding is IMPOSSIBLE. Therefore, the comparison between the racist opponents of miscegenation and the opponents of the civil recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ is one big, huge, gigantic category mistake. There was one use and one use ONLY of this demonstrably false comparison, and that was to SLANDER all opponents of ‘marriage equality’ as racists.

      And, yes, intervention from the federal government is good when it puts to an end to eugenic laws (which could be easily argued are the result of Scientific Liberalism and not, as Dr. Miller mendaciously suggests, that of local, communitarian traditions). Federal intervention is very bad when it declares an ‘equality’ between same- and opposite-sex couples and thereby tries to abolish the unavoidable reality of sexual dimorphism by legal fiat.

  18. Augustus Templeton says

    I should add that the comparison between non-recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ and the criminalization of interracial marriage assumes that sexual discrimination is just as bad as racial discrimination. Well, if you assume that, then if you consider romantic racial preferences to be a bigotry to be overcome, then you must regard any sexual orientation as bigotry as well. Also, something like this might happen:

    Person: So, yeah, let’s see the new Star Wars.

    Person 2: Great, but we should leave now. It’s Friday, there’ll be a big line.

    Person: Oh, right. Okay, just let me get changed, and then we can go.

    Person 2: Great.

    Person: Er, yeah. Just let me get changed, and I’ll be ready in about two minutes.

    Person 2: No problem.

    Person: Um, I said that I’m going to change. That means I’m going to change clothes.

    Person 2: Yeah, no problem. I understood.

    Person: Well, I thought it was understood that you should wait outside while I, you know, change.

    Person 2: Why should I wait outside? It’s cold outside.

    Person: Um, did your parents vaccinate you too early? Because you seem a bit autistic.

    Person 2: No, no. I just don’t want to be in the cold tonight longer than I have to.

    Person: It’s only the hallway!

    Person 2: They don’t heat the hallway. University has a bigger endowment than most developing countries, and they don’t heat the hallway.

    Person: You have your fucking pea coat on.

    Person 2: Why so testy? And, wow, we gotta go. Are you gonna change or not?

    Person: Yes, after you step outside, close the door behind you, so I can have my, you know, privacy while I, you know, UNDRESS.

    Person 2: Oh, is that what this is about?

    Person: Ding, ding, ding!

    Person 2: Oh, my apologies. I am so very sorry. I’ll wait outside. I had no idea you were such a devout Christian.

    Person: Excuse me?

    Person 2: You believe nudity is something shameful or that it will cause me to look at you with uncontrollable lust. That’s the Supernatural Christian belief in Original Sin, committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I would have never known, especially since I only got a B in our evolutionary biology class. You got an A. Geez, you think you know people.

    Person: I’m an atheist!

    Person 2: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

    Person: Don’t you see the big poster of Sam Harris right above my bed?

    Person 2: Well, yes, maybe you’re just a right-wing Christian double agent sent here to spy on our safe spaces.

    Person: Seriously?!

    Person 2: Yeah, seriously. I really resent that you would profile me as someone who would go all psychopathically horny at the sight of you undressing merely based upon my perceived gender. You’re all in favor of racial profiling, too, right?

    Person: What the fuck?

    Person 2: Stop and frisk?

    Person: You gotta be–

    Person 2: Black lives matter, you know.

    Person: What does that have to do–

    Person 2: Intersectionality. Everything goes together. Gender profiling is racial profiling, and racial profiling is racism. You voted for Trump, right?


    Person 2: I don’t believe you.

    Person: Oh Mother of, er…

    Person 2: Mother of God? Come on, just say it. The closet is a lonely, stifling place. Even for a bigoted Trumpkin like you.

    Person: You know what? Fine. I’ll just go like this. Okay, let’s just forget this surreal—

    Person 2: You think I want to be seen now with a Trump Voter out in public?

    Person: You can’t be serious.

    Person 2: You’ve got be prepared to pay the price for your beliefs. Didn’t they teach you that in Sunday School?


    Person 2: Then prove it. Get naked in front of me now!


    Person 2: (in a mocking sing song voice) You voted for Trump!

    Person: GET OUT! NOW!

    Person 2: (still sing song) Putin is your secret boyfriend!


    Person 2: Well, we wouldn’t get tickets anyway. See ya. (exits)

    Person: Oh, Jesus Christ.

    Person 2: (offstage) I heard that!

    In other words, the equation of sexual discrimination with racial discrimination is just barking lunacy.

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